Construction workers must be told to stay away from work or more people will die unnecessarily, Boris Johnson was warned yesterday.
Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan called on the prime minister to prohibit all new building work amid fears that it could exacerbate infection rates.
But Mr Johnson resisted the move and the chief medical officer said there was a “trade-off” between how far the economy could be shut down and how sustainable the measures would be.
Health workers yesterday reported overcrowded Underground trains carrying many construction workers as Transport for London admitted it was only running at 50 per cent of its peak time capacity due to staff shortages.
In the Commons Mr Corbyn cited the case of a self-employed construction worker who said he had contracted coronavirus but had “no other option but to get on the London Tube and go onto a site to work”.
“Can the PM be absolutely clear and give unequivocal guidance now that construction work on non-emergency work should stop now?” he asked.
But Mr Johnson insisted that construction sites could continue to operate as long as they implemented social distancing. Mr Johnson’s official spokesman later said that if “further steps” were required at a future stage then “nothing is off the table”.
The government’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said: “The modelling we have done was based on the idea that quite a lot of people would have to go to work as part of this.
“We have to remember that many of the things we have to do are going to have to be sustained for a reasonably long period of time.
“And broadly the more difficult you make it for people the less easy it is to sustain. So there is some degree of trade-off between those two things.”
Mr Johnson re-opened his feud with Mr Khan, the London mayor, questioning why more Tube trains were not running in the capital.
“My own view is that we should be able to run a better Tube system at the moment, we should be able to get more Tubes on the line,” he said.
However, Mr Khan said: “Construction workers are still going to work and using public transport. You can’t keep a safe distance on sites so the virus will spread and more people will die. I’ve repeatedly asked ministers to ban non-essential work. We need action today.”
He added it was impossible to run a more frequent train service because about a third of London Underground staff were off sick or self-isolating.
A spokesman added that it was not possible to reallocate train drivers to work on the busiest routes as their safety training was line specific.
John McDonnell warned that MPs were receiving reports of businesses refusing to shut down. “Reports pouring in to MPs of businesses ignoring lockdown and forcing workers to work, putting them at risk of Covid-19 and spreading it,” he tweeted. “They are putting all our lives at risk by their greed. The government must act to shut them down and the media should be naming and shaming.”
In Scotland Ms Sturgeon, the first minister, demanded that all building sites in Scotland close after workmen were pictured crammed into a cabin at a development in Edinburgh yesterday.
“Our advice right now is that we would expect construction sites to be closed unless the building that is being worked on is essential, such as a hospital,” she said. Scotland cannot compel building sites to close but the police could take action if large groups of construction workers were not following social distancing rules.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, insisted that construction workers should continue to go to work. He told BBC Breakfast: “If you or your employer believes you can continue to operate safely within those guidelines then it’s sensible for you to do so.”
Some firms have already taken unilateral action. The housebuilders Bellway, Persimmon, Barratt and Galliard Homes said that they were shutting construction sites. However, both Redrow and Cairn Construction said that they would keep sites open.
Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, told Newsnight that the government needed to change tack. “This decision about allowing non-essential work appears to be taken for economic reasons when actually — when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic — health reasons alone really should be guiding all decision making,” he said.
Transport for London said that crowd control measures had been introduced, and 500 British Transport Police officers are patrolling stations to remind passengers that only essential travel is permitted.
Down escalators towards platforms have been switched off to slow the flow of people onto trains, while discussions are on-going with mainline rail operators to stagger the arrival of trains at key interchanges.
Passenger data from early today showed that Tube travel was down by a third compared with Tuesday.
But writing on Twitter, one senior nurse said: “Another busy Tube. Can we not stagger people’s start times so we aren’t all squashed on the same Tube. This is unsafe and not fair.”
Another said: “The Tube is packed, with social distancing impossible. We need more people to stay at home and more trains running in morning and evening peak.”